Brexit and higher education: the impact on staff and funding one year on

Blog posts

23 Jun 2017

Joy Williams

Joy Williams, Senior Research Fellow

One year on from the referendum and as the negotiations between the UK and the EU begin, the picture is still unclear over the future relationship. A number of concerns have been raised by individuals and sector bodies in discussions, and newspaper and journal articles, around the impact this will have on staffing and research in the higher education (HE) sector. Key concerns include increased barriers to recruiting European staff; barriers to international research collaborations; and concerns over future funding for research.  

A companion blog by Alex Martin considers the prospects for EU students in the UK.

Brexit brain drain?

The vote for Brexit and subsequent negotiations come at the same time as a toughening stance from the government on immigration. As well as controversially continuing to include HE students within immigration numbers, the UK government have not yet acted to guarantee rights of residency for EU nationals. They have stated that they can apply for a permanent residence card, however, and some higher education institutions (HEIs) (for example, the London School of Economics) are encouraging staff to apply for permanent residence by providing advice and financial support for the process. With the details of Theresa May’s proposals on EU nationals due to be published on Monday, it still remains to be seen whether the UK will offer the same unilateral right to remain offered to UK nationals living in the EU.

General immigration policy hardening could have a severe impact on HEIs. In total across UK universities, there are around 55,000 members of staff on academic contracts who are EU or non-EU nationals, representing approximately 28 per cent of the academic workforce. Time and again, HEIs and their sector bodies recommend that discussions over staff and student movement should be at the forefront of the negotiations. For example, the Russell Group of universities have called for an immigration system which ‘actively supports universities in attracting, recruiting and retaining talented staff and students from the EU and across the globe.’

Uncertainty is leading to difficulties recruiting and retaining staff. As it stands, the insecurity over immigration and staff movement is already having an impact. A University and College Union (UCU)survey of over 1,000 lecturers and professors found that almost a third (29%) of respondents already know of academics leaving the UK. Three-quarters (76%) of EU academics stated that they were more likely to consider leaving UK higher education following the vote to leave. An overwhelming majority (90%) said they think Brexit will have a negative impact on the UK higher education sector.

To counter this potential brain drain of EU national staff, a new immigration regime could help to attract more global talent, but an immediate first step that the government could take would be to confirm the rights to reside and work in the UK post-Brexit for current EU national staff and students.

Continuing collaboration

As with confirming the rights of EU nationals, taking swift action to reassure researchers in the UK and EU about the continuation of support for innovation and research, and commitment to funding, would signal that UK researchers remain available for research collaboration.

Five of the UK’s top 10 partners for international research are EU member states. Framework partnerships enable researchers to build relationships across the EU through joint research projects, research mobility and networking opportunities. In particular, the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) framework programme for research allows universities to host foreign researchers and create strategic partnerships with other institutions. This plays an important role in attracting EU researchers to the UK, and leaving the EU could mean no longer being a part of such frameworks.

Future funding

EU funding currently comprises about 16 per cent of the research income of UK universities or 2.5-3 per cent of total income, making it important to UK HEIs. Further, the UK pays in less than researchers take out. The UK receives funding from Horizon 2020, second only to Germany, and has won more awards than that country from the European Research Council. It stands to reason that Russell Group universities have called for continued access and influence over these funds, to ensure that the UK continues to be globally competitive. A paper by Universities UK also concluded that the UK should aim to include research as an explicit area of cooperation in any free trade agreement that is negotiated with the EU.

The government has given assurances over Horizon 2020 and regional EU funding so far, but many still feel that more could be done. Especially given that the aforementioned  UCU study reveals 44 per cent of those surveyed said they know of academics who have lost access to research funding as a direct result of the Brexit vote. Although new funding opportunities (India or China for example) could open up alongside existing European programmes, the exit from the EU could represent a loss in funding.  


At this stage it is still too early to see whether the concerns outlined above will be allayed by the negotiations, but many in the sector have set out what they would like to see. Time will tell whether new opportunities open up or whether doors are closed.


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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.